Let Them Play

Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game. ~Michael Jordan

Sports teach you character, it teaches you to play by the rules, it teaches you to know what it feels like to win and lose—it teaches you about life. ~Billie Jean King

Dear Parents,

I am writing this blog while I sit in my rental car and watch one of my boys at a college division 1 soccer camp. This is a recurring theme in my life, sitting in my car at a practice, at a game, or at a tournament, watching him play while trying to tie up the loose ends of my life. I have it down to a science. I know what to pack, how long it takes each child to wake up and get ready, where the fields are located, what they need to eat before and between games, how long a cycle takes in a coin fed hotel washing machine, and how to hand wash and dry dirty socks and cleats in preparation for a game the next day. This is going on my sixth year. And what is so funny is that this scenario repeats itself again and again by scores of parents whose kids are in travel soccer, baseball, softball, gymnastics, cheer, and many other sports. Back in my day, as a kid, if I wanted to play a sport, my mom would take me down to the county recreation department and sign me up for the seasonal sport du jour. In the fall, I played soccer, in winter I played basketball, and in spring I played baseball. During the summer, kids would usually meet at a field or basketball court for an unstructured pick up game.

Now, I have talked previously about how the chances of a kid getting into an NCAA program or going pro are miniscule at best. So what is the point of all this practice?

Well, luckily for me, like some of you out there, I’ve decided to lap myself and give this parenting thing a do over. I am again standing on the sideline as some poor coach (previously me, but now it’s my older son) tries to direct a bunch of five-year-olds on a soccer field. It makes herding cats look like a cakewalk. At the end of a game, however, win or lose, the kids usually come off the field happy, tired and ready for a juice box. In its essence, this is why our kids play sports. To learn a skill, to learn how to work with a team, to learn patience, good sportsmanship, to be prepared, to be coachable and to win and lose with class.

So if these are the main reasons for participating in youth sports, why do most parents fall down that slippery slope of casting off all other sports and encouraging their child to specialize in one sport?

There is the assumption that sport specialization distinguishes those who become experts and elites from those that do not. Therefore it makes sense that by specializing in one sport and focusing on deliberate practice of that sport with extra hours of instruction, the child’s skill will improve greater than their peers. All of that sounds great, but let me give you some of the negatives of specializing in one sport. First off, it increases the risk of overuse injury. Just like a hinge on a door that will eventually fail after thousands of cycles, a kid’s shoulder will wear and fail if all it does every day, eleven months out of the year is throw a baseball. By allowing children to participate in multiple sports, they utilize different muscles that lead to better overall conditioning than they would by just focusing on one set of muscles for one sport.

Also, there can be significant psychological issues involved in sport specialization. Athletes who specialize usually have greater pressure from parents and coaches along with intrinsic struggles for perfectionism. This can lead to early burnout. Burnout itself can be social in nature, such as isolation from peer groups combined with pressures by coaches and parents. It can also be driven by physical factors due to over training, overuse injuries and lack of sleep. The available evidence suggests that youth specialization before the age of 12 is associated with increased burnout and decreased athletic development.

Most importantly, there is lack of evidence that early specialization is necessary for elite adult performance. A study out of Germany reported that athletes that participate in other sports beyond the individual’s main sport were associated with greater long-term success in an elite sport. In addition, 97 percent of professional athletes believed being a multisport athlete was beneficial to their success. Diversification of sports during childhood results in increased long-term participation, increased adult performance and increased personal development.

baseball team group photoIn my office, I have a forty-year-old framed picture of my little league baseball team on opening day down at Mallery Park. My dad and the tallest kid on the team, Thad Haygood, stood behind us holding the team banner. We were all smiles, clean jerseys begging for a stain and gloves that smelled of saddle soap. My mother has dozens of those team pictures when I was on different teams for different sports: Strikers, Island Express, Cardinals, Nets, etc. Some teams were good and some were bad, but they were all good memories of going out there, competing, and leaving it all out on the field.

It isn't until we’re older that we really begin to appreciate the value of being on a team— the ease of instant friends who share the blood, sweat and tears of each season of our childhood with us. So many values from youth sports have stayed with me throughout my life and are reflected in my attitude now. Work hard; be a gracious loser and an even more gracious winner; keep your head up until the game is over and learn from every loss. I apply these in my work life, my marriage, my parenting and my friendships almost every day. When I’m joyful, I feel like I’ve just hit a game-winning home run at Mallery Park, and when I am upset, I can still hear my dad saying, “We’ll get ‘em next time.” He was usually right…